Monday, April 24, 2017

Why Baltimore's Light Rail underperforms

On occasion of Baltimorelight rail's 25th anniversary the Sun wrote a really good story titled "Light Rail's potential remains unfulfilled". As one who worked on the project from beginning to end, I have have to say the article is thorough and correct. Yet, it doesn't really answer the underlying question: Why does the line under-perform beyond the suggestion that a single line in itself cannot really succeed?
Light Rail on Howard Street in the 1990s (Photo: Kittelson)

True, a rail lines becomes exponentially better the more it is connected to other lines and the more it is part of a system; but there are several light rail lines in America that operate equally isolated with sometimes less miles and do that with decidedly more riders than the Central Light Rail Line (CRL) which carries a measly 22,800 riders a day over its total 33 miles of track. This is nearly 10,000 riders less than originally estimated, in spite of extensions and in spite of operating now also on weekends.

With 691 boardings per mile that is only a bit more than 1/5th of Minneapolis/St Paul's  3,334 riders per mile on 22.8 miles of track, three times worse than new Orleans' vintage streetcars on their 22.3 miles and also fewer riders than Pittsburgh has on its 26.2 miles of rail. Minneapolis is aggressively expanding its system, but at the moment of comparison, Baltimore's line is by far not the smallest, especially if one considers that there is also a 22 miles Metro system which those other cities don't have and that Baltimore's single line has two spurs, one to Penn Station and one to BWI.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul LRT
What can one do if additional rail that would transform a single line into a system is politically not an option? The answer is to put more stuff where the line is, specifically, transit oriented development (TOD). If one can't build more rail to more destinations one can still put more destinations where the rail already is. The LRT to stadium link was exactly the right beginning. But the reason that Baltimore's system does so much less than its peers lies in less intensive land use in the rail corridor.

When the CRL was built in breakneck speed so it could be completed together with Oriole Park as the SUN correctly reports, it had to be built where it was the easiest: On an existing rail right of way. Which happened to be the old  Northern Central Railway, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad and Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway railbeds. That wouldn't have been a problem if those old tracks would have gone where new development was planned, possible, or wanted. But that was not the case. Development in the old and narrow Jones Falls Valley north of Penn Station seemed almost impossible, economically and spatially. The same was true for large stretches on the south end around Westport, Baltimore Highlands and Linthicum. In other stretches, such as Ruxton, transit was not really wanted. The bright lights that justified the alignment were the job centers near the airport and in Hunt Valley, but the rush to build the system through three jurisdictions completely failed to engage the respective planning and zoning departments to redirect development, up-zone land along the tracks and designate TOD wherever possible. The Hunt Valley and the Cromwell Station areas remained as suburban car-centric as they have always been.
TOD at Mt Royal Station 

The trains end in a sea of parking at Dorsey Road (Cromwell Station) and at Hunt Valley. No change to the suburban development zoning was made on either end and also not in the middle. Not on the lands of an old quarry near Linthicum, not for the underutilized Timonium Fairgrounds, not on the giant satellite parking lots the train traverses near the airport and not for the already then ailing Hunt Valley Mall. Only two projects ever attempted to even use the moniker TOD: One was Symphony Center, a large apartment complex erected on the site of an asbestos laden insurance building. From the train Symphony Center's most visible structure is a giant State financed parking garage, ostensibly not a symbol of good TOD. "Our marketing showed that people wanted Class A
space in the city with great accessibility but without the problems of finding downtown parking," (Arthur Adler, then partner in the venture). The other was the near 400 apartment / mixed-use complex of CenterPoint on Howard Street, it, too was equipped with a giant garage.

Whatever development eventually sprung up near the light rail line was not the result of orchestrated transit oriented development planning but the result of the whimsies of a real estate market that increasingly cherished the presence of trains, notably Clipper Mill in Woodberry and the Fitzgerald at the Mount Royal stop.
LRT in the Jones Falls Valley: No space

To this day there is no coordinated effort of maximizing development in the CRL corridor, not in Baltimore County, not in Baltimore City and not in Anne Arundel County either. The City's new zoning code includes a TOD designation, but it is very subtle and timid and there is little incentive for a developer to build inside a TOD overlay instead of outside of it. Even though the State created some enabling laws that made TOD a transit purpose and created a good inventory of properties near transit, a systematic joint review of development potential in the corridor that brought together local land use planners and the transit agency never happened. At least not with the expressive goal of optimizing the rail investment over the entire 33 mile length of the CRL. There were some anecdotal efforts on behalf of MDOT, I recall a Sunday walk with then Secretary Flanagan to inspect sites along the downtown Metro stops that resulted in an executive order of Governor Ehrlich.  There also was a MDOT study showing development opportunities along Howard Street which BDC chose to ignore, but to this day there is no strategic plan for the entire LRT corridor that could readily to be implemented.

Denver LRT: Extending train length to accommodate riders

Of course, the current Governor made it clear that he prefers roads over rail. He decided to kill not only the additional rail line that would finally make a system and is still the appropriate way to do it but also the mother of all TODs, the State Center redevelopment, which would benefit light rail and Metro at the same time. MTA Administrator Comfort told the SUN that it is his aim to make transit work that is already on the ground, a good goal. But is shouldn't be forgotten, to optimally utilize the assets that are on the ground, land use is, at least, half the story! Instead of the holes in the doughnut that characterize so many station areas on LRT and Metro, the region would need to concentrate all possible development there. MDOT once calculated, that all of Maryland's expected growth could easily fit into such TOD areas.

It isn't too late. To direct the real estate demand where it can be most useful: Not at Maryland's remaining forests and farms but near existing rail stations is hard where the real estate market is weak, for example at several Metro stops. But the CRL runs through areas with much better potential, the Jones Falls Valley has recently become a hot commodity. With an all hands on deck effort, it shouldn't be too hard to boost the sagging ridership of the CRL with the same tools Minneapolis-Saint Paul has done it or Denver is doing it. For it to happen, a true regional partnership would be needed between the three local governments and MDOT. With tight public resources nothing less is what voters should expect from their elected officials.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


List of United States light rail systems by ridership:

Largest city
served
Ann’l
Ridership
(2016)
Avg. dly
wkday
boardg
Q4 2016
System
length
Avg dly
boardg
per mile
Q4 2016
Yr
opened
Stations
Lines
Yr
last
exp'd
1
69,236,700
226,500
26 miles (42 km)[2]
8,711
1897;
1929
74
5[2]
2004;
n/a
2
65,829,000
211,700
98.5 miles (158.5 km)[4]
2,149
1990
80
4[4]
2016
3
52,597,300
164,300
35.7 miles (57.5 km)[8]
4,602
1912;
1980
152
2007
4
40,240,300
124,200
60 miles (97 km)
2,070
1986
97
5
2015
5
25,127,600
82,000
68.4 miles (110.1 km)[16][17]
1,199
1906
>100
2005
8
24,585,000
75,900
58.5 miles (94.1 km)[18]
1,297
1994
62
7
2013
9
22,963,500
72,900
21.8 miles (35.1 km)[21][22]
3,344
2004
37
2014
10
19,220,300
64,300
46.8 miles (75.3 km)[23][24]
1,374
1999
56
2013
11
19,121,621
52,388
20.4 miles (32.8 km)[28]
2,568
2009
15
2016
12
18,335,800
56,600
23.8 miles (38.3 km)[30][31]
2,378
2004
44
2017
13
16,322,800
51,200
26.3 miles (42.3 km)[33]
1,947
2008
35
2016
14
15,450,736
51,867
17 miles (27 km)[38]
3,051
2000
24
2011
15
15,343,900
45,800
46 miles (74 km)[40]
996
1993
37
2006
16
12,286,600
41,300
42.9 miles (69.0 km)[44]
963
1987
53
2015
17
9,931,100
29,900
42.2 miles (67.9 km)[45]
709
1987
62
2005
18
8,084,400
24,900
22.3 miles (35.9 km)[46][47]
1,117
1835
2013
19
7,783,100
21,324
26.2 miles (42.2 km)[48]
814
1984
53
2012
20
6,910,000
17,700
5.2 miles (8.4 km)
3,404
1878
1952
21
6,888,500
22,800
33 miles (53 km)[51]
691
1992
33
1997
22
5,724,544
19,994
6.2 miles (10.0 km)[38]
3,225
1935
16
2006
23
5,147,500
16,400
11.1 miles (17.9 km)[52]
1,477
2007
20
2017 (planned)
24
4,899,700
17,500
6.4 miles (10.3 km)
2,734
1984
14
n/a
25
Streetcar
4,623,520
15,248
7.35 miles (11.83 km)[57]
2,075
2001
76
2015[58]
26
2,830,339
8,954
34 miles (55 km)[38]
263
2004
20
2013
27
2,600,700
8,500
22 miles (35 km)[62]
386
2008
15
n/a
28
2,485,900
6,810
15.3 miles (24.6 km)[63]
445
1913
34
1996
29
1,399,500
4,300
7.4 miles (11.9 km)[65]
581
2011
11
n/a
30
937,885
2,570
1.6 miles (2.6 km)[28]
1,606
2003
5
n/a
31
Washington, D.C. Streetcar
745,400
2,800
2.4 miles (3.9 km)
1,167
2016
8
1
n/a
32
518,300
1,900
3.8 miles (6.1 km)
500
2007
21
2
2016
33
460,737
2,313
3.9 miles (6.3 km)[69]
593
2014
22
n/a
34
371,000
700
2.7 miles (4.3 km)
259
2014
12
1
n/a
35
294,600
600
2.7 miles (4.3 km)[70]
222
2002
11
2010
36
0
0
6.3 miles (10.1 km)
0
1993
25
2004
37
n/a
n/a
2.2 miles (3.5 km)
n/a
2016
10
1
n/a
38
n/a
n/a
2.45 miles (3.94 km)
n/a
2015
6
1
2016
39
n/a
n/a
3.6 mi (5.8 km)[76]
n/a
2016
10
1
n/a